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Apprenticed to a Himalayan Master by Sri M

Western scholars and Indian scholars obsessed with western interpretations have tried to explain the evolution of the philosophy of Sanatana Dharma using Western terminology. Apparently, initially it was naturalistic and anthropomorphic polytheism which then gradually yielded to monotheism and later to monism. Max Müller suggested that there was a transitory state called henotheism between polytheism and monotheism. But all this terminology is alien to dharmic thought and it is outright silly to refer to such terms. Even a person like Prof. Vinay Lal in his terrible course on Indian diaspora mentions that when Hindus don’t have concepts like these, it is ridiculous to talk about Hinduism using those concepts.

If you read such introductory books on Hinduism, they will mention that the Vedas were sruti, revealed to sages who followed their saadhana. Less mentioned is the fact that there were a large number of people who had unique experiences by following the many practices available as part of the tradition. Such people did not live only in the ancient past, there are many who live amongst us, who have attained higher states of spiritual existence. Some of them live in the holy places in the Himalayas, some live among the mango men. Some demonstrate their siddhis, others don’t.

Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramhansa Yogananda revealed the life of a seeker and the many spiritual souls he met along the way. Living With the Himalayan Masters by Swami Rama was another one. Apprenticed to a Himalayan Master (A Yogi’s Autobiography) is interesting because the yogi was born as a Deccani Muslim – Mumtaz Ali Khan – in Trivandrum in 1948. At the age of nine, when he was just walking in his house, he saw a stranger standing under the jackfruit tree in the compound. As the boy approached him, the stranger asked if he remembered anything and boy replied in the negative. The stranger then said that years later, he would remember everything and went away.

Two years later, he experienced kevala kumbhaka and along with it tremendous happiness. As he grew up, he met various people who suggested books (on Vedanta, Upanishads, Gita, Yoga, Kudalini) and taught him yogic practices. Among the people whom he met in Kerala included a tea shop owner turned saint, a naked lady on the beach, and a Sufi saint. At the age of 19, he left for the Himalayas and while wandering around Badrinath, he went to a cave where he met the person whom he had seen at the age of nine in Trivandrum. He spent the next three years traveling with his guru in the Himalayas, after which he returned back to Kerala where he still lives.

In the introduction of the book, the author mentions that he had many unique experiences of which many would be unbelievable. This book includes topics  like meeting beings from another planet and walking through doors. Books by other spiritual gurus too contain such unbelievable anecdotes. What is fascinating about the book is the way it reveals what a spiritual country India still is. All way from Kerala to the Himalayas, there is a culture which transcends language and unites the nation. There are many gurus teaching in many traditions in the free flowing marketplace of ideas without the fear of blasphemy. Even before the British invented a nation called India, there existed an India where an 8th century Malayali named Shankara could travel, learn and teach. That India is very much alive in M’s book.

Postscript: I have never met the author nor listened to any of his teachings. Just chanced upon the book while browsing the spirituality section of a bookstore.

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An Instance of the Fingerpost by Iain Pears

Writers of historical fiction tend to use few standard structural patterns. The most common one is when all the events happen in the same time frame as in Wilbur Smith’s Warlock or Jason Goodwin’s The Snake Stone or Javier Sierra’s The Secret Supper.  Another popular structure is when people in the present time frame are chasing a treasure or reacting to events that happened centuries ago. In such styles, two timelines alternate with clues set up in one narrative affecting the events like in the novels of Daniel Silva or Clive Cussler. More adventurous writers handle three timelines like in the Bible of Clay by Julia Navarro.  Then once in awhile you read books, where the writer juggles much more than three timelines effortlessly, weaving a tale or presenting an idea that is captivating, like in David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas.

An Instance of the Fingerpost plays with the structure in a different way: the tale of a 17th century murder at Oxford is narrated by four people who were present and each of those narrators are unreliable and have their own agenda. The story is set during the period following the events of Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies . Charles II was keeping the throne warm and the sugarcane plantations of Barbados were generating wealth. Oxford was a town filled with scientists, philosophers and priests and it is to this town that the first narrator — a Venetian named Marco da Cola — who is in England to tend to his father’s business affairs, arrives.

There he mingles with intellectuals like Robert Boyle, John Locke, Thomas Ken and Richard Lower and mingles in the local taverns and their homes. He is also a gentle soul, helping the poor Sarah Blundy whose mother has been injured and no one would help. He claims to have invented blood transfusion and uses it to help Sarah Blundy’s mother. Then one day, a fellow at the college is found murdered, with traces of arsenic in whiskey. Sarah Blundy, who was seen around  is accused and hanged.

The second narrative is written by Jack Prestcott, the son of a Royalist traitor. He is on a mission to clear his father’s name and runs around to find evidence for it.  He believes his father was framed by someone powerful, while everyone else believes otherwise. The father’s treason was created using  secret messages which were encrypted using some books as the key and he wants to find the messages and the key.  Prestcott was in jail and had escaped in the night of the murder by trying up Dr. John Wallis who had come to visit him. Dr. John Wallis, who had worked as a crypographer for both Oliver Cromwell and the King is the narrator of the third part. He has been tasked by the minister with keeping the country safe, irrespective of the ruler and everywhere he looks, he sees conspiracies. He could have helped Jack, if he found the books that were used as the key for encryption. The final piece comes from Anthony Wood, an antiquarian, who is acquainted with all the characters and has an entirely different perspective on the events as well as the actors.

The 700 page book quite successfully recreates the 17th century Oxford with all the issues of that era such as the conflicts of the class system, the battle between the King’s men and Cromwell’s acolytes and the fights between philosophers and scientists. The book is not for those who want something quick to read like Daniel Silva; the story is quite complex and deals with a varied number of issues. Each sentence is well crafted and there is depth to the conversation between the characters with details of medicine, curing ailments, surgery, various philosophical and  religious schools, questions of loyalty to men and God.

A main worry of 17th century Europe and 21st century Delaware was witches. You see witches being burned few centuries earlier when Christopher Columbus was on his way to Hispaniola; you see similar theme in 17th century Germany. Oxford, the seat of learning for England, was no different and you see Sarah Blundy being accused of the same because she could heal. This was also a period when Papists were feared as well as  ridiculed and since Marco da Cola was one, this issue plays out well.

As each narrator tells his story, the previous narrator’s story is either refuted or altered or something that was downplayed, gets noticed. Thus Marco da Cola, who looked like a curious tourist in the first story, gets a completely new coat of paint in the last one. Sarah Blundy, who looked like a poor girl in Cola’s narrative is found to be a bigger player in the events that happen.  As the story moves forward, there are surprises culminating with a climax that could not be anticipated, but was seeded all along. The murder of a seemingly irrelevant person was part of a conspiracy which affected the future of England and that makes it a satisfying read.

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Writing Historical Fiction (10): Geoff Nunberg

A while back, when I was reading one of those modern retellings of The Ramayana, I saw  a sentence which mentioned Rama walking through the Diwan-i-Khas and found that anachronism irritating. The Immortals of Meluha was  a collection of such anachronisms. Sometimes we need the Internet to find such oddities, but sometimes it just stands out due to lazy writing and poor editing. On NPR, Geoff Nunberg talks about this issue as well the question of historical characters speaking about modern issues instead of issues of their period.

But I give a pass to anachronisms if they don’t jump out at me. No, Mrs. Patmore probably wouldn’t have said “when push comes to shove,” and Lord Grantham should have waited a couple of decades before telling his chauffeur to “step on it,” but that isn’t what’s problematic about “Downton”‘s vision of the past. Even when the characters are speaking authentic period words, they aren’t using them to express authentic period thoughts.

The earl who frets over his duties as a job creator, the servants grappling with their own homophobia, those are comfortable modern reveries. Drop any of them into a period drawing room comedy by Shaw or Pinero, and they’d be as out of place as a flat-screen TV.

Equality, prejudice, race itself. How can you have mid-19th-century characters use words like those without anachronistically evoking the connotations they have for us? To many of Lincoln’s contemporaries, and even his allies, equality still evoked alarming echoes of the French Revolution. To speak of race equality implied not just that people should all be treated alike, but that the races really were morally and intellectually equivalent.

That was an extreme and dubious proposition to all but a few radical Republicans, like Thaddeus Stevens. Lincoln himself almost certainly didn’t believe it, nor did the prominent scientists of the age. In fact, race equality was the phrase the defenders of slavery used to charge that the Republicans wanted to raise Negroes to the same status as whites and encourage miscegenation, charges that most Republicans indignantly and sincerely denied. It’s discomfiting to read the accounts of those debates in Michael Vorenberg’s “Final Freedom,” the book that Kushner chiefly drew on in depicting them.

It’s hard for us to adapt our understanding of words like equality to a 19th-century moral frame. And it’s to Kushner’s credit that there are some overtones of those attitudes in his screenplay. [Historical Vocab: When We Get It Wrong, Does It Matter?]

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Borgia: The Election of Pope Alexander VI in 1492

Italian Peninsula in 1492 (via Wikipedia)

Italian Peninsula in 1492 (via Wikipedia)

A week or so later, a group of cardinals will enter a secret conclave to elect the next head of the Catholic church. TV cameras will be focused on a chimney in the Vatican and the world will be forced to watch the color of smoke that appears. This time, the election is interesting because of the way Pope Benedict departed from the office and also due to the controversies such as the child sex abuse, mismanagement at the Vatican bank, the leaking of secret church documents. As the cardinals are Googling each other and meeting in private apartments and restaurant backrooms,  while scandals and intrigue heat up, people are petitioning for the removal of certain cardinals from the conclave.

In 1492 CE, there was an interesting papal election; this was the time of Leonardo da Vinci and Niccolò Machiavelli. It was the year in which Christopher Columbus set off on his voyage to discover Asia and it was during this newly elected pope’s time that Vasco da Gama reached Calicut. The French-German TV series Borgia had two episodes devoted to what exactly happened inside the Sistine Chapel and the fictional depiction showed that the whole process had no sanctity and simply was a medieval version of The House of Cards played in the name of a religion. Deals were made, money was transferred, forged documents were presented and even army was summoned, all while the cardinals were holed up in a chapel after taking an oath not to communicate with the external world.

The person who desperately wanted to become the pope was Roberto Borgia (pronounced Borja), the same person who sent  Madonna Damiata to investigate a murder in The Malice of Fortune. Though he was not a favorite, he was sure with that the right amount of cunning he could pull it off. During this period, when the worst insult consisted of accusing one of being a Muslim or Jew, there was no unified Italy, but it was divided into a number of warring city-states, kingdoms and duchies and the election of the pope consisted of finding the balance between those battles. Besides the local politics, the relation between Portugal, Spain and France added more spice in the election.

As Borgia enters the conclave, under an oath not to have any contact with the outside world, he he sure of six votes, but needs fourteen to win. But once the doors are closed, the cardinals start bickering over a new oath the pope elected should take. Since the church is rotten to the core  and members could buy positions in the Curia, they want to limit that practice. But some members oppose; they don’t want  the Vicar of Christ to take man made oaths, but instead want the oath to be non-binding. Once that is resolved, Borgia approaches the Portuguese cardinal and uses his Spanish origins to bargain. Since they both are the non-Italians in the group, he proposes that they unite.

After the first round of voting, Borgia receives just the six votes he expected. He tries to convince a cardinal who received one vote (his own) to support him, but he calls Borgia a whore. The next day, a letter in which Pope Pius rebuked Borgia for attending an orgy, surfaces. As all attention turns to him, Borgia turns the table on his accuser. The accuser had supported Borgia in his two previous attempts to become pope and on those two occasions, he did not bring up the letter. Hence this had to be a forgery. While it calms the proceedings, it reduces his supporters by one.

The next day another letter surfaces which alleges that the King of France had paid 200,000 ducats to one of the cardinals to buy off the election. It also accuses that the forged letter against Borgia was created using French money. Accusations go back with cries of “liar” and “hypocrite”. A young cardinal, who is on his first conclave, wonders why letters are being smuggled in against all rules. The vote count following all this reduces Borgia’s count to four and it looks as if he is on his way out.

Borgia starts negotiating directly with potential supporters. When he promises money, one of them retorts that his opponent as promised double the amount and if they go back and forth of money, all money in Rome would be insufficient for the counter offers. Then Borgia offers him the position of Vice-Chancellor, a position he currently holds in addition to the coins. By the third day, the cardinals are offered only one whole meal a day and all of them who are used to a lavish lifestyle cannot take it. Borgia uses this opportunity to smuggle in a great meal. He also promises an abbey for one cardinal, a church for another and a harbor for the third. He even promises to banish his nephews and niece (actually his children) so that they do not become competitors to the cardinals. A cardinal from Florence was worried about the power of the Medici and Borgia promises him that if he became pope he would crush that family. In the next round of voting, his count increases to ten.

One of the losing cardinals sends a message to the king of Naples to bring his army to Rome, hoping that  force would help clear the indecision. As a battle gets underway outside the, the cardinals decide that they will not suspend the conclave till the pope is chosen. The cardinal who summoned the army apologizes for his mistake and asks his supporters to vote for Borgia’s opponent as he thinks Borgia is not a Catholic, but a Spanish Jew who converted. But by the next vote, Borgia’s tally increases to 12 and his opponent to 13. The one who gets 14 wins and it becomes critical for Borgia to get there by any means for else he will have to flee to Spain.

In the final act, he negotiates directly with his competitor. He claims that he is a Roman and is concerned about reforming the church than about the politics between Milan, Naples and Florence. When that does not work, he offers the office of the Vice Chancellor. As bribery and flattery fails, Borgia takes the final weapon in his arsenal; he produces a document which alleges that the opponent’s family has Muslim blood in it. This accusation, Borgia threatens, is sufficient to put him out of business forever. The opponent succumbs and accepts the position of Vice Chancellor and the deal is closed. The next day when the votes are counted, Borgia gets 14 votes and he yells, “I am the Vicar of Christ!”

The politics of 2013 is definitely not going to involve calling armies or passing silver coins, but the Vatican thinks the leaks of certain reports have been done to influence the election of the pope. In 1492 election, theological views were never discussed, but for the coming election, it is expected that a conservative pope will be elected because Benedict has filled the positions with people who align with his conservatism. This means that the Church’s position on homosexuality and birth control will not change. What is same from 1492 is this:  even though the growth of the church has been outside Europe in the past century, the electoral college is Eurocentric. We will not know what exactly happens inside the conclave, but one can follow certain blogs and get a sense of the events.

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Briefly Noted: The Flanders Panel by Arturo Perez-Reverte

Julia, a young art expert in Madrid, specializes in restoring paintings for auction. While restoring The Game of Chess by the 15th century Flemish painter Pieter Van Huys, she comes across a secret Latin inscription left by the painter which read, “Who killed the Knight?” The oil painting depicted two nobles involved in a game of chess and in the background, next to a window, lay a lady, dressed in black and reading a book that lay in her lap. One of the chess players was the Duke of Ostenburg and the other, a knight named Roger de Arras. The lady reading the book was Beatrice of Burgundy, the Duke’s consort.  According to history, by the time Van Huys painted the picture, Roger de Arras was dead and could not have posed for the picture. Thus the painter seems to have left a clue suggesting the identity of the killer.

With such a secret inscription revealing a Renaissance era murder, it was clear that the value of painting would go up and people involved in the deal start trying to backstab each other. As Julia tries to find out the identity of the 15th century murderer, a similar game starts in her life. Like chess pieces captured in the painting, people associated with her start getting killed. An invisible chess player starts leaving clues around and she has to figure out the identity of the modern killer.

After reading books like Steve Berry’s The Columbus Affair and Daniel Silva’s The Fallen Angel (which features an art restorer), it was quite refreshing to read this book.  Most of the historical thrillers I have read tend to be formulaic; this one was different and had multiple layers to it. It takes us to the world of art dealers, auctioneers and people who mint money in that world through nefarious schemes. The dialogue was not off a screenplay, but had depth; the people involved discussed mysteries involving chess, music, art, and fiction at both concrete and abstract levels. It was not an easy read compared to the books I mentioned, but it was worth it. Many thanks to my friend Fëanor for recommending it.

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